Opinion: Whisky makers should prioritise distinctive, complex spirit character over all else — instead of chasing mass appeal

Opinion: Whisky makers should prioritise distinctive, complex spirit character over all else — instead of chasing mass appeal

It takes conviction to stick to a distinctive spirit style, but time has shown us that distilleries with big personalities win hearts and minds — and make better-tasting whisky in the long run, too.

It’s widely accepted that the whisky industry seems to attract, or perhaps forges, unforgettable characters. That master blender Richard Paterson has gone viral on TikTok (racking up 32 million views in a fortnight) is not just a testament to The Nose’s unrivalled showmanship, but an indication of the public’s love of whisky’s special blend of reverence, ritual, humour, and joie de vivre.


Similarly, it’s the distinct characters of distilleries that have fuelled the current obsession with single malt Scotch whiskies, which in theory only vary in style within a relatively narrow spectrum of characteristics – as defined by the distillery’s ‘profile’. Though makers may tweak formulations’ cask make-ups and ages, or ‘polish’ the liquid with exotic casks, a single malt distillery’s character should be, broadly speaking, immutable by both design and precedent. (I’m not counting those Scotch distilleries designed to make multiple styles, such as Loch Lomond, and Roseisle, which employ multi-style production similar to what's commonplace in Japan and the USA.)

Ardbeg is known for its complex mixture of smoky, fruity, floral and cereal flavours.

Whisky’s ‘rock stars’ are so unique and instantly recognisable that they attract devoted followers. Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Mortlach, Springbank, Glenfarclas, Brora – they’re as different from one another as Mozart and Iron Maiden but each is iconic in its own right. The problem with a strong personality, though, is what might enrapture one person might rub another the wrong way. A defined and distinctive distillery character takes bravery and conviction. It is a rejection of small-m minimalism, which (distinct from laudable Minimalism) aims to suit all tastes through banality. A unique spirit style is a statement of intent that demands a response from the taster, who may love or loathe it. Being one thing means not being something else. It is a riskier way to do business, but I believe it's also the foundation of greatness.


Indeed, I think it's foolish to second-guess what might appeal to present and future whisky drinkers around the world, as it can lead to strategic missteps like the myth of only 1 in 5 (or 1 in 10, depending on who you talk to) people liking the taste of peated whisky, and the even bigger mistake of thinking that smoky spirit wouldn't appeal to whisky drinkers in Asia. Only now are we realising quite how popular peated whisky is — and there isn't enough to keep up with demand.


Blends like Johnnie Walker rely on having access to a constant supply of whiskies of certain consistent styles — though the actual recipe of single malt distilleries making up the blend may change slightly from batch to batch.

For the past five decades, Scotch distillers have upgraded infrastructure and ‘cleaned up’ their distilleries in an effort to boost efficiency, reduce emissions, and iron out ingrained production faults they believed made their whisky unappealing – not to mention harder to sell at young ages. Commercially, this made sense: blenders needed many distilleries to be somewhat interchangeable when putting together the recipes for mass-market products. There's nothing new about this approach, and it's the foundation of the 20th century's blended whisky business.


And it’s for good reason that ‘fruity’ is the most common first descriptor for most single malts: what is more universally appealing than a general fruity flavour? The problem is, while a homogenous, generally appealing style may seem like good business sense, it’s hard to differentiate from competitors and can quickly bore customers, who move on. Cue: a never-ending pipeline of cask finishes to keep us on the hook.


Only now are makers realising that some of those erased production faults weren’t faults at all, but the ‘DNA’ of their distilleries. While the upgrades may have been good for the bank balance and the environment, and the clean spirit of fine quality, this ‘progress’ may have been the distillery equivalent of a lobotomy.

The new Port of Leith Distillery is experimenting with yeast varieties in order to produce a complex spirit.

Thankfully, many distillers seem to be realising that there’s a market for big personalities, and they are looking to the past while planning for the future. Diageo, for instance, is deliberately producing three styles – peated, waxy and, believe it or not, butyric – at its reborn Brora Distillery. Beam Suntory has reintroduced floor malting and direct firing at Glen Garioch. InchDairnie and Arbikie have chosen to focus on the flavours of rye, and Holyrood has become a de facto research centre for unusual and historic mash bills – not to mention yeasts, which will also be a focus for Port of Leith when production starts.


Outside Scotland, many ‘new world’ distilleries have been making idiosyncratic and downright mind-blowing whiskies for years, and there’s one I can’t stop thinking about: Hellyers Road 7 Years Old Sherry Cask. When I first tried it back in March, I experienced what can only be described as a ‘jaded critic in Ratatouille moment. Founded in 1997 by a group of dairy-farming families, Hellyers Road has one of the most distinctive spirit styles I’ve tasted to date. I know little of this Tasmanian distiller’s people and production methods, but based on flavour alone it’s clearly charting a course of its own and not giving in to conventional thinking, earning my instant respect. So, let’s raise a toast to the real characters for having the confidence to stand out from the crowd.


An abridged version of this column originally published in print in Issue 192.

Hellyers Road Distillery has become known for its unique spirit style and approach to whisky making. Its range of whiskies, including the 7 Years Old Sherry Cask has recently be re-released in new packaging.
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